Mill Mountain is located five minutes from downtown Roanoke, Virginia. Activities in the park include hiking, hiking with dogs, trail running, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Parking at the Star Trail trail head is free and located at the base of Mill Mountain; off of Riverland Road. It does not include restrooms or water. At the top of the mountain, there are nice restrooms and the Discovery Center includes water too (when it is open). Parking is also free and more abundant at the top of the mountain; take Walnut Avenue around the southern side of the mountain. Cell phone service is strong while in the park. The following Google Map includes partial GPS coordinates for the Star Trail; my phone lost GPS signal in the dense forest.
The Star Trail is 1.6 miles long and ascends 700 feet; from 1,000 feet to 1,700 feet. It begins as a gravel road.
After entering the forest, the trail is a mix of single track and double wide trail. It is primarily smooth which made it easy to soak in the scenery because we didn’t have to worry about tripping over rocks and/or tree roots. In addition, it includes switchbacks that reduce the intensity of the ascent.
At about the one-third point, the trail crosses the road. You can shorten the hike by starting at the road but there is only enough parking for two cars so it is advised to plan to start from either the base or the summit.
Carrying our child in a kelty child carrier, we hiked to the summit in less than an hour. The 1.6 miles and 700 feet in elevation gain felt moderately challenging and was easier than we expected. Specifically, the trail gently inclines so carrying an additional 40 lbs (our daughter and the backpack) was less stressful on our knees than we expected. Near the trail, we saw several eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.
At the summit is the Roanoke Star; the world’s largest man-made star. Built in 1949, it is made of steel, 88 feet tall, and visible 60 miles away from the air. The summit includes parking and restrooms that are only 100 feet from the star and its overlook platform.
There is a viewing platform that looks north and offers an obstructed view of downtown Roanoke.
The following video includes a 360 degree view from the overlook.
Discovery Center and Playground
The summit also includes the Mill Mountain Discovery Center; a hub of nature learning with classes, outdoor programs, and exhibits.
The Discovery Center includes environmental education exhibits that are fun for both kids and adults. The following interactive exhibit shows our daughter learning what four different animals eat.
In the back of the Discovery Center, there is a flower garden.
In the summer, butterflies can be seen in large numbers in this garden including tiger swallowtails and spicebush swallowtails (seen below).
In addition, there is a small playground near the Discovery Center.
As part of my master naturalist training, I try to identify at least one tree on each hike. The following tree was identified/estimated using the book “Common Native Trees of Virginia”. The tree has broad, flat leaves that alternate. Its leaves are simple and do not have lobes. Its leaf margin is not toothed/spiny. The tree does not produce an acorn-type nut (I think), was not found in a swamp, and leaves are not heart shaped. Assuming all of the aforementioned is correct, the tree is a common persimmon. Unfortunately, the pictures I took were poor quality which made it difficult to narrow down a list of possible trees.
In sum, the Star Trail and Mill Mountain summit provide numerous family-friendly outdoor opportunities that offer rich connections with nature. What’s more, the mountain is only five minutes from downtown Roanoke. Nearby trails include:
- Chestnut Ridge Loop
- Explore Park Mountain Biking Trails
- Mountain Biking at Mill Mountain
- Woodpecker Ridge Nature Center in Troutville